Missouri football players prove power of athletes as agents of change

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Maybe I should be pondering other decisions today.

Like my own “never, ever do that again” decision to predict an Alabama loss after getting egg-faced with my LSU pick last week.  (“Please pick Mississippi State,” begged one of my favorite Alabama fans this morning.)

Like the absolutely nailed-it decision by the College Football Playoff committee this week, to rank Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame as the top four.

Like the flip-a-coin decision for Auburn’s coaching staff, which has gone from – let’s see if I can get this in order – a potential immortal quarterback who became an underachiever, who turned the job over to a raw QB who transformed into some epic figure in courage who sat out a game and turned it back over to the former potential immortal/underachiever who is now a paragon of resilience.

But something happened this week in the Southeastern Conference to transcend football, a decision by a team united.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel posted this photo of his "team united' on Twitter

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel posted this photo of his “team united’ on Twitter

The Missouri football players threatened to stop all football-related activities if the school president didn’t step down. There was a culture of racism on campus they claimed he did little to change. It led to numerous protests, including a hunger strike by one student.

The players were agents of change. They brought more visibility to the situation. The Missouri situation was local news, well under the radar, until the football team stood up. Then a nation watched.

Then the president resigned, as have others who let the problems continue.

Maybe it’s the child-of-the-‘60s in me, fondly romanticizing college protests of the past, but I applaud their stand.

Just as loudly, I applaud the Missouri coach, Gary Pinkel, an old-school, for backing his team.

In an interview with Kansas City’s WHB radio Tuesday night, he said the firings were “something the university systems did. It certainly wasn’t my intention, but that was secondary to me supporting my players.”

Sport can be an effective soap box. Athletes can play enormous roles in change.  Too often, they’re deathly afraid to do so. People like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jackie Robinson have been few and far between.

It may be an apocryphal quote, but Michael Jordan was said to have explained his reluctance to take a stand because “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Take a stand, it alienates fans, diminishes endorsement possibilities and, frankly, takes some effort beyond the self-absorbed athlete’s cocoon.

Ironically, much of the time athletes have brought change from their negative behavior, from high-profile mistakes. The national discussion on domestic abuse never reached the heights it should have until Ray Rice beat up his girlfriend in an elevator and it was caught by a surveillance camera.

Missouri is still something of an outlier for the Southeastern Conference. They ain’t from around here. They seem to do things a little different there, the culture a little different. I can’t imagine the same sort of stand working at, say, Alabama or Tennessee. Nor could I imagine the “so what” attitude that greeted the coming-out of the gay former Missouri star Michael Sam.

I don’t pretend to know every angle of the controversy that has struck the campus. I know there are multiple side to every story. I’m not taking a side.

I know it’s a universal truth that college kids say and do dumb things, and sometimes a school president shouldn’t have to take the fall because some parents send their little dumplings off to campus without much political correctness or wisdom. Good ACT scores and walkin’ around sense are mutually exclusive.

Which side is most right doesn’t really matter.

What matters is the reminder that power of sport, the power of athletes willing to take a stand, is a remarkable force.

It needs to be wielded wisely.

But it needs to be wielded more often.